Biden’s Summit for Democracy is a tough hill to climb
“As President Biden has said, we have to prove democracy still works and can improve people’s lives in tangible ways,” noted a State Department press release. “To do that, democracies have to come together — to rejuvenate and improve our open, rights-respecting societies from within; to stand together in defending against threats from autocracies; and to show we can address the most pressing crises of our time.”
But, in private, some U.S. officials and many foreign policy experts in Washington roll their eyes over the whole affair. Critics see the event as an inconsequential talk shop or an unwelcome showcase into the inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy on the world stage, as Washington goes to bat for human rights in some contexts and looks the other way in others. Participation in the summit doesn’t necessarily come with any obligations, nor are there any genuine mechanisms to hold participant countries to certain commitments or standards surrounding their democracies.
For what it’s worth, the Biden administration is using the moment to address a weighty, diverse set of issues. On Tuesday, a preliminary set of meetings saw the United States make a commitment along with 20 other countries to enhance corporate transparency standards, increasing governments’ abilities to track and prevent the “dirty money” of kleptocrats and autocrats from being laundered in their banking systems. The sessions also touted steps taken to link development aid with democratic consolidation, to buttress organized labor in democracies elsewhere, to boost female participation, and to protect against online harassment and abuse.
Over the past year, Biden has leaned in heavily into a narrative of the Ukraine war that pits Kyiv’s fledgling democracy against the tyranny of the Russian invader. In the Ukrainian capital and at the ramparts of a famous castle in Warsaw, he repeatedly appealed to the solidarity and strength of democracies around the world in the fight against authoritarian rulers and tendencies. At this address, he described the geopolitical moment as “an inflection point,” where the United States and its partners can turn the tide of a grim period of global democratic backsliding.
Whether that’s something Biden can actually achieve is unclear, but he has set out his stall. Skeptics of the whole enterprise fear the United States is not fully invested in the effort and has halfheartedly and inconsistently “centered” human rights in its foreign policy. They point to myriad examples, from Biden’s mending of fences with the Saudi royal he once vowed to make a “pariah” to the United States’ tepid response to a de facto anti-democratic coup in Tunisia (to be sure, the North African nation was not invited to this week’s gathering), to its embrace of India — the world’s largest democracy and a desired ally in the confrontation with China but one dominated by a right-wing religious nationalist ruling party that, most recently, expelled India’s most prominent opposition leader from parliament.
The United States, out of principle, did not invite Turkey or Hungary to this week’s summit, a mark of how it views both countries’ democratic decline in recent years. But then there’s the awkward case of Israel, long hailed by Washington as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, but which has been in global headlines for the crisis that sees it lurching down the Hungarian path. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked this week from a controversial effort to assert greater political control over Israel’s judiciary and appears to still be slated to participate in the summit.
“Netanyahu has already recorded a video message for Biden’s democracy summit and submitted it to U.S. officials in Washington, said a diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic,” my colleagues reported. “The Biden administration has given no indication that it plans to rescind Netanyahu’s speaking opportunity at the summit, though some liberal supporters of Israel say providing a platform for Netanyahu under the current circumstances is at odds with the mission of the summit.”
Biden told reporters Tuesday: “Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear.” But has Biden?
Supporters of the gathering insist it’s better than nothing. Laura Thornton of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a program run out of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, argued that while far-right populists and ultranationalists of various stripes are building global networks and partnerships, liberal democrats need to do the same. “It is high time those who believe in democracy come together with the same level of organization, enthusiasm, and support for one another to defend a liberal democratic order,” she wrote.
“Without suggesting that the fight has been won, or that Biden is doing everything right, I think we need to give him credit for helping to save American democracy and standing up to the great authoritarian powers,” Tom Malinowski, a former U.S. diplomat and Democratic congressman from New Jersey, told the New York Times.
Others lament the absence of real teeth to Biden’s democracy-boosting rhetoric. “They can bolster democratic activists and strengthen civil society organizations, but they can’t impose costs on autocrats for malign behavior,” wrote Jon Temin of the Truman Center for National Policy. “As a result, the Biden administration’s approach to democracy support has plenty of programmatic carrots but few policy sticks. This isn’t a formula for success, since autocrats and reformers alike can see that Washington will commit resources to defend democracy but won’t use its leverage or expend political capital to do so.”
And policy wonks also bristle at the overtly ideological character of the project. “The summit for democracy is a bad idea that [won’t] go away,” tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Beyond the awkward ‘whom to invite’ issue, American democracy is hardly a model for others. Plus we need non-democracies to help us in the world, from sanctioning Russia to slowing climate change.”